Pokémon Red, Blue And Green: How The Nintendo Game Boy Hits Were Made
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Featured Image Credit: Nintendo, Game Freak
This year, 2021, marks the 25th anniversary of Pokémon. The very first Pokémon media of any kind, the Nintendo Game Boy role-playing games Red and Green, released in Japan on February 27th, 1996. I wasn't quite 16, and by the time the games made it to Europe, in the autumn of 1999, as Red and Blue, I was already away at university. I picked up Blue, and still have my copy today; but truth be told it didn't fully connect with me at the time. But Pokémon's story since these debut games has been one of total global domination - millions upon millions of people did, indeed, want to catch 'em all.
The Japanese releases of Red and Green (or Akai and Midori, to be more regionally accurate) were followed by Blue, in October 1996, and the games combined sold over one million copies, domestically, in said year. The next year, that sales figure more than tripled, putting Pokémon ahead of Square's (now Square Enix) RPG masterpiece, Final Fantasy VII - despite some surprisingly average critical appraisals of the game (the often high-scoring Famitsu only awarded Red and Green 29/40).
By 2000 both the Game Boy games and the accompanying Trading Card Game had seen The Pokémon Company, Nintendo and Game Freak register gross sales revenue of four billion dollars, just in Japan. The stage was set for international success.
Those picking up the original Pokémon game had two sets of choices to make: which version to buy, and which Pokémon to begin their adventure with. Each colour corresponded to a different starting Pokémon: red for the fire-type creature Charmander, green for the grass-type Bulbasaur, and blue for the water-type Squirtle.
While the covers, and the colour of the Game Boy cartridges, varied, the same three starter Pokémon were available in each edition - and while the UK didn't receive Green, Bulbasaur remained a starter option.
"It was really because of teamwork that I think the original Pokémon games came out as interesting and fun as they were." - Junichi Masuda
Where the Red, Blue and Green editions truly stood apart from one another was which other Pokémon could be caught using Poké Balls, to build up the player's collection of beastly little buddies. Using your Game Boy's Link Cable, it was possible to hook your Red up to a friend's Blue, and for you to get access to Pokémon not on your own base game.
And even doing this didn't guarantee you a complete set of 151 Pokémon - one particular critter, the super-rare Mew, became legendary for their trickiness. Various glitches could be exploited to catch a Mew, but many never bagged the elusive creature.
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But to move on from the basics of the game, which I expect many of you are familiar with anyway, just how did Pokémon even get to Red and Green? What went into the creation of the games that started it all? (And no, this isn't a complete history - but please, let's take some steps back in time, together.)
Perhaps inevitably, it all began with Game Freak - a name Pokémon fans around the world know as the primary developer of the video games, alongside their publisher Nintendo, but a company that didn't originally make games at all. Rather, Game Freak was a magazine, or really more of a fanzine, dedicated to the coverage of video games.
Game Freak was founded on this day in 1989. The creators of the Pokémon series were originally a magazine publisher before getting into video games proper. pic.twitter.com/gWPct59OZc
- RPG Site (@RPGSite) April 26, 2018
Game Freak was founded in 1983, in Tokyo, by Ken Sugimori and Satoshi Tajiri - the former did the illustrations, the latter the text. The name Game Freak came from a pseudonym that Tajiri sometimes used while freelancing for other publications.
Come the end of the decade however, the pair were itching to further their involvement in their chosen industry, so Game Freak expanded its team and evolved into a developer, formalising its transformation on April 26th, 1989.
Game Freak's debut title was Mendel Palace, released in 1989 and also known as Quinty in Japan. A tile-flipping, single-screen puzzler for the NES, where the player must use the flooring of each stage to repel enemies, it's playable on Switch today via Bandai Namco's Museum Archive collection (as Namco published the game in Japan, whereas Hudson Soft picked it up in the US). What it's not is a clear precedent for Pokémon, but the modest success of Mendel Palace - it sold 60,000 copies in the US - inspired its makers to be more ambitious with their next game. And that's when conversations with Nintendo began.
And they were conversations that, initially, Nintendo really didn't get. After a relatively simple puzzle game, the pitch for Pokémon - or Pocket Monsters, aka Poketto Monsutā (the Japanese portmanteau really helps you see where the name comes from) - seemed confused and complicated, not completely in keeping with the kinds of games Nintendo had made its name with. Conceptually, Pokémon wasn't immediately clicking with Nintendo's management, even with only 50 of its titular monsters suggested at first. But there was something about what Sugimori and Tajiri were proposing, so Nintendo set one of its finest, Shigeru Miyamoto, to work alongside Tajiri to bring focus to the project.
Best known for his work on the Super Mario and Legend of Zelda series, Miyamoto's role in the development of Pokémon isn't as heralded as his more-famous credits, but its importance cannot be understated. He mentored Tajiri, and in turn the small team at Game Freak learned from his experience. Miyamoto helped to implement the games' trading mechanic, encouraged the production of two games rather than one, and is listed as producer on Red and Green.
As for the Pokémon themselves, the collecting side of the gameplay is a callback to Tajiri's childhood hobby of scooping up bugs. His father told Time magazine in 1999 that his son had been known to friends as 'Dr Bug' due to his habit of catching insects around their neighbourhood; and in 2000, Tajiri himself recalled his childhood in a conversation with Nintendo Online Magazine (his quotes are archived at lavacutcontent.com):
"I was born and raised in Tokyo, but it was a part of Tokyo called Machida," Tajiri said. "It's pretty rural, [surrounded by] a lot of nature, so I think that had a lot to do with [creating Pokémon]. That's why there were so many mysterious critters around. I didn't even know what to call half of them."
The design of the monsters, meanwhile, was all about balance. As the artist for all the original 151 Pokémon of Red and Green, Sugimori explained his process in 2018:
"The technique I often use when finishing up designs for Pokémon is to 'keep the balance'. I might try adding something uncool to a Pokémon that is too cool, or I might add something cheerful to a Pokémon that is too serious. (So) what I actually do is take something cool, and make it less cool. Basically, if it looks too cool, then it takes away from what makes it memorable for the players."
Speaking to Polygon in 2018, Junichi Masuda - the programmer and composer on Pokémon Red and Green, and Blue, who'd joined Game Freak in 1989 - remembers the process of taking Game Freak's early ideas and turning them into the game that debuted in Japan in February 1996. "It wasn't always a smooth development," he remembers, stating that the full six years were spent refining Pokémon Red and Green - an exceptionally long development period then, just as it would be today.
'We were able to get by through doing other projects, for different companies, along the way, in order to make ends meet," he continued. "While, on the side, people worked on Pokémon in the time they had off of those other projects. It was really because of that teamwork that I think the original Pokémon games came out as interesting and fun as they were."
But those additional projects - including (Mario &) Yoshi for the NES and Game Boy, and Smart Ball and the Japan-only Mario & Wario for the Super Famicom/SNES - didn't bring in enough money to avoid considerable hardships.
"I think it's amazing that the biggest hit the games industry has ever had, Pokémon, was a Game Boy game." - Satoru Iwata
During the making of Pokémon Red and Green, five members of Game Freak quit, and Tajiri stopped taking an income from the studio, in order to ensure there was enough money around to sustain development. Investment from Creatures Inc, a company assisted by future Nintendo president and CEO (and then-HAL Laboratory president) Satoru Iwata, helped to get them over the line, albeit at a cost as Creatures would take a third of the games' profits.
In 1999, Iwata - who worked on further Pokémon titles, including Pokémon Stadium and Pokémon Snap, and got the Poké Ball rolling on the English localisation of Red and Blue - used Game Freak's series as an example of how gamers don't need amazing visuals to be transported to other worlds. He told Used Games magazine (via Nintendo Insider):
"I think it's amazing that the biggest hit the games industry has ever had, Pokémon, was a Game Boy game. I think there's so much to learn from that. Cutting-edge graphics and impressive CGI are tools, but they aren't the only tools we have."
Prior to the release of Red and Green, however - and before Red and Blue, and then the Pikachu-starring Yellow version, became huge international hits - Game Freak did worry that they were making a title for a handheld console that'd been around for several years, and was absolutely showing its age.
"Near the end of development, we started to get really worried because we were developing it for the Game Boy," Masuda told Polygon. "At the time, in Japan, the Game Boy was in decline. You didn't see so many people playing on it, out and about, at that point. Even when we were talking to our friends in the industry, (they said), 'You're making a Game Boy game? That's not going to sell very well.'"
Naturally, history rather states otherwise. Game Freak successfully fought back against expectations, and won, just as the company had overcome the challenge presented by the very platform they were developing Pokémon for. Speaking to GamesRadar+ in 2019, Masuda recalled: "It was a fight against capacity, a fight against what we could fit onto the cartridge." That number of Pokémon swelled from 50 to way more, before being, Masuda remembers, cut back to "the favourite 150", which took "a lot of effort".
"Pokémon will always be about my childhood. I think adults and children see the world differently, so I wanted that to be reflected in the game." - Satoshi Tajiri
"I like the Game Boy as a machine," he added, "but trying to work with all these challenges and make a game that anyone could get into, and enjoy, was difficult." Not least of all when your computer constantly overheats, as Masuda revealed to Game Informer in 2016. "I think I went through four computers by the end," he remembered.
Overcoming those challenges is exactly what Game Freak and its partners achieved, however. And looking back at the last 25 years, it's hard to imagine a time where Pokémon wasn't a guaranteed hit, where artists and designers had to make sacrifices to bring the very concept of the franchise to life. But as the background to Red and Green makes clear: many battles were faced, in order to let players catch 'em all.
In 2000, Tajiri told Nintendo Online Magazine about how his own bug catching gave way to something new - and how these two passions ultimately fused to form the idea of Pokémon. He also touched upon something incredibly important to the success of the franchise, in those early years.
"When I was in junior high, the small fishing pond near my house got turned into an arcade," he said. "So I stopped catching bugs - instead I started playing games like Space Invaders and Galaxy Wars. That was the point in my life when my interests instantly turned to video games. All of these experiences together eventually became the concept of Pokémon.
"Pokémon will always be about my childhood. I think adults and children see the world differently, so I wanted that to be reflected in the game."
And perhaps that's why a player like myself, who didn't touch a Pokémon game until they were an adult, has such a different relationship with the series to my colleagues who are ten and more years my junior. For them, playing Pokémon meant seeing a different world brought to life partially through on-screen pixels, but just as much their own imagination. But more than that, this was a game, a series, that put a child at the centre of its story. And there's huge power in seeing something of yourself in any interactive experience. And for the players who've grown up with Pokémon over the past 25 years, the simple joy of reconnecting with their childhood through a game series will never get old.
Check out more articles in GAMINGbible's Pokémon Week, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the franchise:
Pokémon Fans Have Made The Franchise What It Is, 25 Years On
My First Pokémon: The GAMINGbible Team's Original Pocket Monsters